In 2018, the Texas Longhorns finally started to fulfill some of the expectations heaped on head coach Tom Herman and his roster of blue-chip recruits. An appearance in the Big 12 Championship Game, a Sugar Bowl win over the Georgia Bulldogs and a thrilling win in the Red River Showdown were some of the highlights.
Yet, disappointments also popped up throughout the year to remind the Horns they still have room to improve. Teams that hope to win conference crowns and play in the College Football Playoff can't afford performances like the ones UT gave in losses to Maryland and West Virginia.
Here are three reasons to believe the Longhorns will break through this year with a trip to the Playoff, along with three reasons why they won't.
Three Reasons Why Texas Will Make it to the College Football Playoff in 2019
1. Sam Ehlinger to Collin Johnson
Ehlinger made undeniable progress as a thrower in ‘18, improving his touchdown-to-interception ratio from 11:7 the previous year to 25:5. He also raised his yards per attempt from 7.0 to 7.8 in the same timeframe.
Johnson's decision to come back for another year of college gives Ehlinger a reliable downfield target who can mentor the other receivers on the roster. The duo will probably hook up even more often this fall.
2. The offensive line is finally shaping up
Herman's decision to hire veteran offensive line coach Herb Hand paid off quickly last season. UT's blockers played at a level that the program probably hasn't seen in more than a decade. The OL could get even better this year with the addition of All-ACC pick Parker Braun, a graduate transfer from Georgia Tech.
3. A great collection of safeties
It would be tough for any team in the country to top the Longhorn trio at safety of senior Brandon Jones and sophomores Caden Sterns and B.J. Foster. The group of ballhawks gives defensive coordinator Todd Orlando flexibility on the back end to throw different looks at opponents. Given the personnel losses on defense from a year ago, Orlando will lean heavily on the safeties to hold down the fort until the newcomers are ready to contribute.
Three Reasons Why Texas Won't Make it to the College Football Playoff in 2019
1. The offense has lacked explosiveness
The Texas offense was supremely methodical in ‘18. The Horns' ability to string together sustained drives offset their inability to fire off big plays. Notably, UT and Central Michigan were the only two teams in the country that didn't have an offensive play over 50 yards last season.
If Texas can't figure out a way this season to coax some more explosive plays out of the offensive attack, it will put a ceiling on how far the Horns can go.
2. Revamping the front six
The losses up front for Texas from 2018 are massive. Defensive lineman Charles Omenihu was arguably the best defensive player in the Big 12 a year ago, and his two colleagues on the line, Chris Nelson and Breckyn Hager, also graduated. Linebackers Gary Johnson and Anthony Wheeler, the team's leading tacklers in ‘18, departed, too.
Linebacker Jeffrey McCulloch and defensive end Malcolm Roach return, but most of the players joining them in the front-six mix lack for skins on the wall.
3. Replacing Lil'Jordan Humphrey
Humphrey had a huge effect on the ‘18 Longhorns, posting team-leading totals in receptions (86), receiving yards (1,176), and touchdown receptions (nine). He featured prominently in UT's offense in key spots, with 31 of the squad's 81 completions on third down. Those yielded 25 of the team's 56 conversions on third down through the air.
Humphrey wasn't just productive – he gave Ehlinger a bailout option when necessary. Another player in the receiving corps matching his physicality this year probably won't happen.
In light of all the new faces – especially on defense – Texas has the makings of a team that may struggle to find its footing early in the season. That makes the Longhorns' game in week two versus LSU a tall hill for UT to climb. By the time Texas gets to the Cotton Bowl in October for its annual game against the Oklahoma Sooners, though, the Horns may have put it all together.
Can this team make the College Football Playoff? Most likely not. Yet, Texas can contend for a Big 12 title again. Not backsliding would represent a change from the last decade of futility and signal the program has finally reached some semblance of firm ground.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 11
Athlon’s Projected Final Record: 9-4 (7-2 Big 12)
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 10.5
5 Dimes Projected Over/Under Odds: 9.5
— Written by Allen Kenney, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Kenney is founder and editor of BlatantHomerism.com and host of the Blatant Homerism Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BlatantHomerism.